The 48 Iranian “pilgrims” kidnapped by Syrian rebels Saturday are none other than Iranian Revolutionary Guards, rebel leaders allege.
Egypt’s Al Arabiya network reported Sunday that it obtained footage of a Free Syrian Army officer displaying the Guards and stating that they were on a reconnaissance mission in Damascus.
“During the investigation, we found that some of them were officers of the Revolutionary Guards,” he said, showing identification cards taken from one of the men who appeared in the background of the video. Two armed men stood behind them with a large Syrian independence flag.
Al Arabiya said it later interviewed an officer who said, “They are 48, in addition to an Afghani interpreter”, and he claimed they are part of a larger 150-strong group sent by Iran for reconnaissance.
Iran and Syria are key allies, heavily dependent on each other, and reports began filtering out of Syria months ago that Iranian Guards were helping Syrian President Bashar Assad’s secret police and army in its brutal effort to overwhelm the seething opposition.
Iranian state-controlled media reported that “the pilgrims” were captured by opposition fighters as they travelled from the airport in Damascus to a home in the suburbs of the capital, where they supposedly were planning to visit a major Shiite Muslim shrine.
Iran’s foreign ministers asked Turkey to intervene on its behalf to release the group.
The kidnapping episode took place as Syrian President Bashar Assad unleashed extreme force to try to take control of the commercial hub of Aleppo at the same time the United Nations has essentially thrown up its hands after vain attempts to help restore some semblance of order in the country.
The United States still hangs on to its stated policy of “engagement” while refusing to arm rebels. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton next week will go to Istanbul “for bilateral consultations with the Turkish government on Syria as well as to cover other timely issues,” U.S. State Dept. spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
By that time, several hundred more people will have died, based on the daily death toll the past several days. On Saturday, 205 people, more than half of them civilians, were killed.
The Syrian air force is pounding Aleppo in a desperate attempt to keep the major city out of rebel hands. On the ground, government officials said 20,000 troops have arrived, while rebels maintain they have control of half of the city.